Opening Lineups and Formations
Manchester United manager Sir Alex Ferguson fielded his side in a 4-4-2 shape. Ben Amos was the goalkeeper while Jonny Evans and Chris Smalling were the center-back pairing. The da Silva twins were the full-backs -- Fabio on the left and Rafael on the right. In central midfield, Ji-Sung Park and Darron Gibson were the duo and they were flanked initially by Federico Macheda on the left and Antonio Valencia on the right. Up front, Dimitar Berbatov and Mame Biram Diouf were the pairing.
Crystal Palace played in a 4-1-4-1ish shape. Lewis Price was between the posts at Old Trafford while captain Paddy McCarthy and Anthony Gardner were the center-back tandem. Nathaniel Clyne was the right-back and opposite of him was Dean Moxey at left-back. In the center of the park, David Wright played in a holding role while Stuart O'Keefe and Kagisho Dikgacoi played a more advanced role. Jermaine Easter led the line in attack and he was flanked by Wilfried Zaha on the right and Sean Scannell on the left
1. Crystal Palace's 3 v 2 advantage in the center of the park - This was likely a match that most expected United to dominate possession in. By the match's end, United finished with 59% of the possession but that number is somewhat misleading. At half-time, it was essentially even (51%-49% in United's favor) because United were being overrun at times in the center of the park. Palace's trio of Wright, O'Keefe, and Dikgacoi were compact for the most of the match and they simply played short passes with each other around United's duo of Park and Gibson. Valencia was tucking in centrally and much of this was likely due to the need of an extra body there. When United began to close down their counterparts, Palace simply would send the ball long to either Easter -- who dutifully ran well all night to chase balls as a lone outlet up front -- or they would find the dangerous Zaha in space. When in possession, Berbatov would drop deep and look to link play between the attack and midfield -- this would result in 3 v 3. When out of possession, United were overrun until Valencia tucked in from his wide right positioning.
2. United fail to play with enough width - As mentioned, Valencia was not playing with much width. Many of his runs with the ball were directed slightly inward and not very near the touchline. This was dragging his marker, Moxey, towards the middle as well and space was opening for overlapping runs by Rafael. The Brazilian did well to motor up the right touchline and provide width. However, United failed to play Rafael enough down the touchline when he would surge forward. Part of this blame could be placed on the Park and Gibson -- each failed to swing the ball from side to side enough. On the left flank, Macheda continually looked to cut in onto his preferred right boot. It was the same for Diouf when he switched to the left flank and Macheda moved up top to partner Berbatov. Fabio was not getting forward as much as he typically does because he was preoccupied with Zaha. With Palace playing narrow and compact through the middle, the space for United was out wide and this was their best avenue to attack. They failed to do this enough.
3. Both sides lack incisiveness in attack - United began to look brighter in attack towards the latter stages of the 1st half. This coincided with Berbatov coming deeper for the ball and linking play. Macheda and Diouf's switch proved to be a positive move as well. This was Gibson's first game this season for United and he grew into the match after a slow start -- perhaps due to rustiness. However, as the match wore on, the one player United continually looked to was Valencia for any incisiveness in attack. His willingness to take on defenders -- from a narrow wide right position -- was always the most likely way for United to break through the well organized Palace defense. The Reds did not seem to have any other ideas and their attack became quite predictable.
Palace's main focus seemed to be on keeping their shape and staying compact. In attack, they were reliant on the individual brilliance of Zaha for their most threatening moments. When Darren Ambrose came on at half, he began as the wide attacker on the left while Jonathan Parra -- who had come on earlier for an injured Scannell -- moved to left-back. Ambrose continually came inward in the space between the lines while Parr was marauding forward with overlapping runs down the left flank. Ambrose failed to open up the United with his distribution but it was his wonder strike from 30-35 yards out that opened the scoring. This space was continually open and his long-range shooting became a threat. It was needed since Palace had little incisiveness in attack. Parr did provide a few crosses into the box though but they were mostly handled well by United.
4. Late adjustments - All three of United's substitutions were forced due to injuries. Although players shifted around, the shape remained mostly the same. Ravel Morrison's introduction did have him playing in a withdrawn role from Macheda. When Paul Pogba came on and forced Park's move to right-back, Palace manager Dougie Freedman astutely moved his most dangerous attacker -- Zaha -- to the left side of Palace's attack. Park is a versatile player who is very sound defensively, however, right-back is a very unfamiliar position for him. The Korean's positioning was suspect at times at right-back and Zaha began to yield his influence again on the match after a brief dull period for the Palace youngster. Perhaps recognizing this danger, Fergie switched Smalling over to right-back in extra-time while moving Park back to central midfield. Freedman's last substitution of Glenn Murray for Easter was simply a like-for-like move. Both Easter and Murray were rarely threatening from open play and their simple role seemed to be providing an outlet with their running. The goalscoring threats were from the wide attackers.
5. A few thoughts on the youngsters - Morrison provided a spark when he came on at the beginning of the 2nd half. The starlet fired a few shots on goal and his much hyped talent was evident. However, as the match wore on, his influence dwindled and he was mostly a non-factor for the final 40-50 minutes of the match. Pogba demonstrated his physicality and technique in flashes but he was far from dictating the match in the center of the park. Zeki Fryers showed well going forward and his willingness to join the attack. Zaha also began to disappear when he came on. However, Fryers was a bit loose with passing at times and against a higher level of competition, these giveaways would likely have been punished more.
6. A few thoughts on the regular squad players in need of a game - It was encouraging that both Gibson and Valencia seemed to improve as the game wore on. It was even more encouraging that the latter seemed willing and confident enough to take on defenders -- this has been lacking this season. Valencia's form was tremendous last season during the run-in and it is that form United need when he is deployed on the right flank. Park was far from brilliant versus Palace but he was asked to play in positions that are not his natural ones. Nonetheless, his value to this squad is often overlooked because of the thankless roles he plays. Getting 120 minutes was important as it helps maintain his match fitness. And we're all aware of the impact he can make when his form peaks as it also did last season during the run-in.
Hopefully Berbatov's knock is not serious because he is needed due to the current injuries to Danny Welbeck and Michael Owen. Macheda received much criticism after the match and it is certainly deserved, but he also had some good moments as well. His penalty was well taken and he did well to keep his positioning high and occupy two center-backs so that Morrison had more space to operate in underneath. This center-forward contribution often goes unnoticed. Diouf appears to have a good head on his shoulders and has a good work-ethic, but he simply is not United material at this point.
It was mostly a solid outing from the likes of Rafael, Evans, and Smalling. The latter was perhaps United's best player versus Palace. However, Evans let Murray slip him for the winner. Hopefully Rafael's knock is not serious but it is becoming more and more alarming how fragile the da Silva twins are.